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AT&T's Donovan: Resistance to Change Is Futile

Speaking at BCE, the top AT&T exec says there's no downside for companies that transform themselves and adopt open source software and plenty of downside for those that don't.

Alan Breznick

May 18, 2017

4 Min Read
AT&T's Donovan: Resistance to Change Is Futile

AUSTIN, Texas -- Big Communications Event -- As far as John Donovan is concerned, companies have everything to gain from transforming their operations and adopting open source software. But they stand to lose plenty if they don't.

Speaking here in a keynote session Wednesday morning, Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T Technology & Operations, expounded on the benefits of both cultural transformation and open source code. In particular, he preached the virtues of open source, both for companies that participate actively in the process and those that don't.

"It doesn’t have a downside," he said. "You can either be an active participant with contributors and do the work with an agenda or sit back and do the work. In neither case are you penalized."

In AT&T's case, Donovan estimated that the giant US telco doubled its use of open source code from 5% in 2015 to 10% in 2016. While that may seem a laudable achievement for a company that size, he is far from satisfied. "We want to go to 50% and I'm not even sure that's near high enough," he said.

Donovan, who joined AT&T in 2009 after working in Silicon Valley, contended that companies must move much faster today to adapt to rapidly changing markets, introduce new products and services and fend off new competitors. As a result, he said, there's no time any more for lengthy strategy debates, numerous use cases, multiple executive sign-offs, endless consensus-building and "hot tub parties for every decision" that needs to be made.

"You can't operate with people who want to come over the top of you, dead-serious competitors that look at your profit pools as your revenue," he said. "They'd love for us to move slow. We have to move quickly at scale. Looking at use cases that take months and accommodating all the use cases is not the way to be effective."

Noting that he barely recognizes the company he joined eight years ago, Donovan also urged others to follow AT&T's lead in transforming its corporate culture, structure and operations to move faster, take more risks and innovate more on its own. "There is not a lot of organizational courage, courage to go out and be wrong," he said. He advised his industry colleagues to "celebrate the people who succeed and dust off the ones who fail" so they can go out and try again. (See AT&T's Donovan: Women Adapt Faster Than Men and CEO Chat With AT&T's John Donovan.)

With the move towards a software-driven world, Donovan said AT&T's relationship with its vendors has fundamentally changed. Instead of being "a professional shopper" that simply buys the best products from vendors, the company has become a technology integrator and, now with the advent of SDN, is becoming more of an architect, building the products that it needs itself.

"We are doing traditionally vendor-led roles," he said. "We are now more ambitious about being willing to architect, and our supplier relationships have either gotten better or worse. None are the same. Either better because our R&D lines up or worse because they don't like where we're heading."

An enthusiastic promoter of SDN, Donovan said software solutions have enabled AT&T to stay ahead of swiftly mounting customer demand at a time when Moore's Law is running out of steam. "The only way to do better than Moore's Law is through software," he said. "That's why SDN is not a pipe dream, it's a mathematical formula. If you run out of money to buy now, you have to do it another way."

Driving home his overall message, Donovan warned conference attendees that they must transform their organizations now or risk losing out to the new breed of OTT rivals, as well as traditional competitors. He argued that telecom and cable companies are actually now "fighting a three-front war" against OTT players, each other and themselves.

"Winning two of the three is failure," he said. "For the industry to succeed but you not to transform is just as problematic."

To watch the full interview between John Donovan and Carol Wilson, click on the video below.

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— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Alan Breznick

Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

Alan Breznick is a business editor and research analyst who has tracked the cable, broadband and video markets like an over-bred bloodhound for more than 20 years.

As a senior analyst at Light Reading's research arm, Heavy Reading, for six years, Alan authored numerous reports, columns, white papers and case studies, moderated dozens of webinars, and organized and hosted more than 15 -- count 'em --regional conferences on cable, broadband and IPTV technology topics. And all this while maintaining a summer job as an ostrich wrangler.

Before that, he was the founding editor of Light Reading Cable, transforming a monthly newsletter into a daily website. Prior to joining Light Reading, Alan was a broadband analyst for Kinetic Strategies and a contributing analyst for One Touch Intelligence.

He is based in the Toronto area, though is New York born and bred. Just ask, and he will take you on a power-walking tour of Manhattan, pointing out the tourist hotspots and the places that make up his personal timeline: The bench where he smoked his first pipe; the alley where he won his first fist fight. That kind of thing.

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